Wider Highways? Bay Area’s Smart Growth Plan Has Some Glaring Mistakes

Population growth in the Bay Area doesn’t have to mean more traffic and more suburban sprawl, if it’s planned for in a sustainable way. To that end, regional planners at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission recently released a draft of Plan Bay Area, a state-mandated blueprint for focusing housing growth over the next 25 years near transit hubs, where new residents are less likely to need a car to get around.

A high-occupancy toll lane on Highway 680. Photo: Laura Oda, Bay Area News Group

Sustainable planning advocates say the plan is mostly headed in the right direction, but it still falls short in some areas. One glaring mistake is that the plan calls for spending billions to widen highways to create high-occupancy toll lanes — carpool lanes that single-occupancy drivers can pay to use. Those lanes should instead be created by converting existing highway lanes, says TransForm, an Oakland-based group that advocates for better walking, biking, and transit policies on a regional and state level.

“MTC’s plan follows a 1970s-era Caltrans practice that limits Express Lanes to new construction only, without even studying the option of optimizing existing lanes,” wrote TransForm Deputy Director Jeff Hobson in a blog post. “This kind of outdated thinking is hardly the best approach to solving 21st century transportation problems – and would completely exclude some of the most congested stretches of highway from the plan.”

Because most of the revenue from HOT lanes will be soaked up to pay for the highway widenings, instead of just charging single-occupancy drivers to alleviate congestion in existing lanes, SPUR has pointed out that they will generate little money for transit improvements. Meanwhile, the new lanes will induce more demand for driving and do nothing to reduce existing congestion.

Shown in pink: Priority development areas, where housing growth will be focused over the next 25 years under Plan Bay Area. Image: MTC

“MTC’s plan continues the cycle of ‘build more lanes, attract more drivers’ by creating new options for solo drivers, but no new transportation choices,” wrote Hobson. ”Over the long term, this strategy is virtually guaranteed to land us back at square one: gridlock on heavily-traveled highways.”

The MTC’s draft plan also fails to include enough new transit-oriented affordable housing to reduce the projected costs of housing and transportation, TransForm says. While the MTC set a goal of reducing those costs from an estimated 66 percent of household income for low-income families region-wide to 56 percent, the agency actually projects those costs to increase to 73 percent of household income. That means living in a walkable community would be less affordable than it already is.

“Without stronger policies in place to prevent that from happening, folks will end up living farther and farther away from places like San Francisco, and we will then encroach on our precious farmland and open space that we’re so fortunate to have in the Bay Area,” TransForm Community Planner Joél Ramos told MTC commissioners at a recent public meeting.

The MTC does expect the plan to meet its goals in six areas, including providing enough housing for all of the Bay Area’s projected new residents without any expansion of sprawl; exceeding the state-mandated 15 percent reduction in per capita greenhouse gas emissions (the projected improvement is 18 percent); and reducing residents’ exposure to dangerous fine particulate pollution, which largely comes from trucks, by 71 percent. MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger also said that the spending plan for transit improvements focuses primarily on fixing existing systems first before embarking on expansions.

Yet Plan Bay Area falls short in addressing other major problems [PDF], with some even expected to get worse:

  • Whereas the MTC’s 2040 goal is to decrease traffic crashes in the Bay Area by 50 percent, they’re projected to increase by 18 percent in the plan (though, on a per capita basis, they would decrease by 10 percent).
  • Whereas the MTC aims to increase walking and biking by 70 percent, the plan is only projected to increase it by 17 percent.
  • Whereas the MTC’s goal is to increase the proportion of trips made without a car to 26 percent, the plan would only increase it to 20 percent.
  • The amount of driving per capita in the Bay Area, measured in terms of Vehicle Miles Traveled, is expected to drop by 9 percent, just short of the 10 percent goal.
  • Whereas the MTC’s goal is to have all transit vehicles and infrastructure that are past their “useful life” replaced by 2040, under the plan the share of expired equipment would actually increase by 24 percent.

Heminger noted that Plan Bay Area is a “first effort” that will be updated every four years, and that the next iteration of the plan should be adjusted so that all the 2040 targets will be met.

Still, he also seemed to question whether some of the targets are achievable. “I think in a couple of these cases, we may have picked the wrong metric,” he said. “I think not having per capita standards is a very difficult thing to do when you’re growing, because the capita keeps growing.”

Heminger also pointed fingers at the federal and state governments for slashing transit funding, as well as Governor Jerry Brown’s elimination of redevelopment agencies, which “might have been the best tool we had to achieve [the] objectives” set in SB 375, the 2008 law that required each region to develop a Sustainable Communities Strategy (Plan Bay Area is the answer to that mandate).

Over the next few years, Heminger said MTC and Bay Area leaders will work to increase local sources for transportation funding by lobbying the state legislature to “fashion some kind of redevelopment framework,” as well as push to lower the regional voting threshold for transportation-funding tax increases from the current two-thirds majority to a simple majority.

Advocates say many of the problems in the plan could be addressed by incorporating ideas from a scenario called the Equity, Environment and Jobs Alternative — which was drafted by the MTC along with advocacy groups including TransForm, the Greenbelt Alliance, Urban Habitat, and Public Advocates, but not adopted by the MTC.

The EEJ Alternative “adds more homes, including affordable homes, in the places with the most opportunities: places with lots of jobs, access to public transportation, and good schools,” TransForm wrote on its website. “Instead of investing billions in highway expansions, invests more money in filling potholes and creating more robust transit service. It adds more incentives for cities to prevent displacement and support building more homes that people of all incomes can afford.”

“As a result, the EEJ alternative would bring us less traffic, healthier residents, fewer traffic deaths, more affordable neighborhoods, and it would do a better job of allowing our most vulnerable neighbors to stay in their homes.”

The MTC expects to adopt a finalized version of Plan Bay Area in July. Residents can submit online comments until May 16 and attend one of the remaining public meetings in San Mateo, Alameda, Marin, and Santa Clara counties.